In Sarasota, we love to party. Local philanthropists and community activists know we'll go to great lengths for a good time, and they've created fund-raising extravaganzas that outshine most private parties. Nearly every Sarasota benefit is a standout, but some are so spectacular that they deserve special praise. So this summer we assembled a panel of party-hardy insiders to recognize the most remarkable. Every panel member compiled a long list of nominations; then we merged those lists and met together to choose the final winners.
It was a lively process, evoking warm memories-and occasional heated debate. Scores of parties came back to life, as we discussed everything from the design of the invitation to the flavor of the martinis to the exquisite favors on the dinner tables. Less glamorous but equally noted were the hundreds of hours of work that lay behind the best-orchestrated events, and most important of all, a party's success in building support-both emotional and financial-for its cause.
Before we applaud our winners, a few notes for newcomers to our peripatetic party scene. Let's start with dress. Though Sarasota is known for casual resort living, "have tux will travel" is the mantra for most gentlemen-the same ones who swore when they moved to Sarasota they'd jettison their neckties and socks. But black-tie dressing can be a bit unorthodox here. The Colony's guiding light Murf Klauber and former Nautica exec (now Sarasota realtor) Michael Clung won't wear socks. Attorney Tom Luzier and businessman Billy Gamble forswear ties. And last year some of our gala gals (Margaret Wise, Jean Weidner, Mary Ann Robinson and Pasqualina Peterson among them) were so frustrated with managing bulging closets of ball gowns and sequined separates that they opened a consignment shop. Now Designing Women on Fruitville Road recycles designer clothes and accessories for the benefit of charities that support the visual and performing arts. You should see the St. John knits!
Not all the fun involves wearing a black tie. Masks of feathers and crystals are often appropriate, especially at events for Sarasota Opera or the Ringling Museum. King Tut turned up at the Ringling School's costumed Avant-Garde gala this year, and a pet dog on a jazzy leash is the correct accessory at a Humane Society event. Basic black always works, too, especially when it's black leather mini-skirts and motorcycle jackets at Planned Parenthood's Safe Sax event. And, yes, Hawaiian leis stay perpetually fresh, this season at the Alzheimer's Association and at Selby Garden's Reggae on the Bay.
Because this is a town populated by high achievers and creative spirits, every year the event bar rises. And every chairman understands what young Gypsy Rose Lee learned from the veteran strippers: You've gotta have a gimmick. Chairs grab attention-and guests-with new ideas and themes, like Wendy Resnick's Pajama Party for United Cerebral Palsy at the end of this season. Even people who swore they were ready for a quiet summer turned out to see the beds in the ballroom at Michael's On East and the who's who of the town-in PJs and less-lounging on them.
And now-the standouts of the 2003-2004 social season!
Best Casual Evening Event
Winner: Safe Sax at Sunset for Planned Parenthood of Southwest & Central Florida
Old-Fashioned New England Clambake for New College Foundation.
Smothers of Invention for the Gulfcoast Wonder & Imagination Zone (G. WIZ)
Edgy, brash and eager to flaunt its booty, Safe Sax is always a youth magnet. This season 600 partiers danced under the stars at the Phillippi Mansion, sipping trendy martinis, checking out competing fashions and widening their circle of friends. As always, the party favors included condoms, which also appeared on one guest as silvery dangle earrings.
A bit more sedate, the Clambake is a bib-wearing waterside evening seafood picnic dreamed up 24 years ago by former pol Jim Lombard and New College Foundation events director Mary Lou Wingerter. The invitation featuring a red lobster hasn't changed in more than a decade, making that weary crustacean a treasured tradition, too. And applause for our children's science museum for bringing Dick Smothers and his far-out '60s' time machine into the spotlight for a night that sent many of us rummaging through storage trunks for bell bottoms, go-go boots and love beads. The Woodstock generation ruled again, if only for a few hours, and the event did groovy things for the museum on the bay.
Best Formal Gala
Winner: Un Ballo in Maschera for the Sarasota Opera
Grand Ball, An Evening of Classical Elegance, for the Florida West Coast Symphony and the Sarasota Ballet of Florida
Mistletoe Ball for the New College Library Association
Venetian carnival masks, gorgeous women in couture gowns and dashing, formally attired men set the haute European tone for one of Sarasota's most lavish galas when Elisabeth Gonye and Sandra Lindqvist organized a magnificent masked ball with an Italian theme for the Sarasota Opera. Bravissimo!
A standing ovation also goes to the opulent Grand Ball, which gives us the chance to waltz around a magical ballroom to the sounds of Strauss. And for traditional holiday elegance, nothing surpasses the Mistletoe Ball, where many ladies come in holly-berry-red gowns of shimmering silk and satin and gentlemen often sport a sprig of mistletoe.
Best Luncheon Event
Winner: The Right Words with Marlo Thomas for the Women's Resource Center
Sarasota/Manatee Moffitt Breast Cancer Awareness Luncheon & Seminar for cancer care and research
Lighthouse for the Blind Fashion Show & Luncheon for Sarasota-Manatee Lighthouse programs that support the visually impaired
As we all know, lunch is the least of it. To be great, a daytime event needs some star power, pretty people, a major mover or two associated with the benefiting charity, generous corporate underwriters and a strong committee capable of filling those tables. This trio of winners proved they could do it all.
The Women's Resource Center scored a coup with Marlo Thomas, attracting a top-drawer crowd. The Moffitt luncheon is now five years old, and Eileen Curd and Veronica Brady pulled all the right elements together again as upwards of 400 local women put on pink ribbons. At the Lighthouse fashion show, Sarasota fashion designer Joan McGee filled the catwalk with beautiful, floaty silks worn by models both professional and volunteer. Every time it was Sandy Snyder's turn, the comments from the audience were always the same: "How can that gorgeous creature possibly be a grandmother?"
Best Event Location
Winner: John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Under The Big Top at Circus Sarasota
Art, nature and entertainment! These three locations tell the story of Sarasota and provide some of the most wondrous real estate a party planner ever had to work with.
Winner: Corinthian Gala for Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation
The Avant-Garde Portals to Everywhere for the Ringling School of Art and Design
The Art of Circus for Circus Sarasota
Taking off on a vintage Florida theme, the Corinthian Gala invitation featured a collection of hand-colored postcards from the '50s that was both whimsical and wonderfully evocative. We'd wager that just about everyone who received this invitation still has it.
And you can't beat those Ringling students. Every year the Avant-Garde invitation is highly creative, but this year was exceptional. Designed like a travel diary/sketch book, the invitation made you want to pack a bag and hit the road. The designers were Ringling seniors Doug Bell and Justin Harder. And the muscled circus performers poised midair on a black background of The Art of Circus invitation perfectly captured the drama and energy of Sarasota's legendary art form.
Winner: Den of the Dragon, honoring the Koger Collection of Chinese Ceramics at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Corinthian Ball for Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation
Big Band Valentine Bash for New College Foundation
It's both in the big picture and in the details that a successful theme makes an indelible impression. The Den of the Dragon event masterfully referenced an important Asian collection through color, design, floral decoration, menu and table gifts. The Corinthian Ball maximized nostalgia for an inviting Old Florida look and feel. At the Big Band Valentine Bash, everyone reveled in rose petals, hearts and plenty of romantic music for slow dancing. Guests honestly felt transported from everyday existence to a magical world at each of these events, and that's what it's all about.
Best Party Favor
Winner: Jay Strongwater jeweled picture frame at Un Ballo in Maschera for the Sarasota Opera
Silk envelope purse, self-stick tassels and red Chinese take-out box at the Den of the Dragon party for the Ringling Museum of Art
Condoms at Safe Sax at Sunset for Planned Parenthood
No matter how rich you are or how much you don't need another trinket, everybody likes to go home with a souvenir of a glorious time. As you can see, party favors in this community range from sublime to imaginative to downright drugstore practical.
Winner: UnGala Gala for the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Oxygen Ball for American Lung Association
Pique-nique sur la Baie for New College Library Association
Personal trainers and spa professionals are the heroes of the UnGala, because clients star at this romping, stomping young stuff dance under the stars. Backless gowns, buffed and gleaming bods, big hair, bulging muscles, plunging necklines (wow, Hilary Carver!)-this night is hormonal heaven with everyone exquisitely framed in moonlight in the museum courtyard.
The Oxygen Ball at the Ritz-Carlton held its own for pulchritude. Many of the pretty women and handsome hunks dancing to Powerhaus were from the Manatee medical community, with a big contingent from Lakewood Ranch, where a new chic set is gaining strength. At Pique-nique it's traditional to wear one's garden-party best and invest in an ostentatious hat. We admired the red feather extravaganza that raven-haired Nikki Feldbaum carried off so expertly. And Graci McGillicuddy's wide-brimmed chalky straw hat was understated perfection against her crisp white suit and striking platinum hair.
Winner: Going For The Gold for the YMCA
Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, What's on Your Plate? for cancer care and research
Evening of Excellence for the Education Foundation
This town adores the chance to snag something you never knew you wanted at a bargain. The YMCA silent auction fills a huge room with a collection of anything you could need or desire, and the trips and jewelry in the live auction are extraordinary. This gala, one of the top in town, raised $325,000 this year.
But who can resist those tremulous high-school students as they wait for their art to go on the block at the Evening of Excellence? It's not only touching, but as the connoisseurs who return to this Education Foundation function every year know, it's also a way to snag some impressive work. And auctioneer Jimmy Dean faced a noisy room without amplification-and even scarier, without a single bidder who had previously indicated an interest-as he asked for bids on the Mercedes at What's on Your Plate? (a Saks event that benefited breast cancer research). He was more astonished than anyone when unknown newcomer Marilyn Bezner (brought by savvy banker and not-for-profit supporter Veronica Brady) piped up with a generous winning bid. The next day, everyone in town was asking her name and hastily adding her to the invitation A-list.
Most Outrageous Fun
Winner: Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil Black & White Costume Ball for the Community AIDS Network
Off-White Party for United Cerebral Palsy
Haunted Halloween for the Sarasota Film Festival
Seeing some of the city's most prominent folks decked out as Savannah ladies of the night (Lee Peterson), fallen nuns (Gloria "Legs" Moss), vampires and just vamps, we realized that some events need to be a little bit bad to be good.
Parties all about racy humor can be chancy, but Sarasota seems to be getting the hang of it. At the Off-White Party, a phallic ice sculpture caused everyone to pause and gawk. White smoke snaked around the dance floor while martinis flowed and guests grabbed free condoms from a glass jar. At Haunted Hollywood to celebrate the Sarasota Film Fest and Halloween, everyone did the Monster Mash and even the catering staff at Michael's donned goblin outfits to pass trays of canapés. Phil Mancini's food, worm spaghetti, looked a bit frightening, but tasted great. But then, he's our magical Merlin of cuisine.
Power and Prestige
Winner: Mark Famiglio's Unwrap Late at Night Party for the Sarasota Film Festival
Den of the Dragon for the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Brunch on the Bay for the University of South Florida at Sarasota
How big is a Sarasota party when Aerosmith's Steven Tyler sings to you and then tells you he likes your jacket? The star-seekers who always crowd Mark Famiglio's after-parties got more than their money's worth this year. Den of the Dragon hosted the serious state politicians, important academics, and mega donors to the arts. Brunch on the Bay signals the annual turnout of business power brokers who meet, greet, talk a little shop and secretly grouse about where their logo tables are located in the tent.
Best New Event
Winner: Smothers of Invention for the Gulfcoast Wonder & Imagination Zone (G. WIZ)
Speaking of Women's Health for WEDU, Public Broadcasting
Off-White Party for United Cerebral Palsy
The science museum wins for excelling in the science (and art) of staging a successful and highly entertaining fund-raiser. Everything about the night with Dick Smothers was infused with lighthearted, relaxed enjoyment. Speaking of Women's Health proved that 450 local women would pay $40 to rise early on a Saturday morning, put on make-up, and arrive at the Ritz Carlton at 8 a.m. for a day of seminars, lectures, screenings and interaction with health professionals.
Just when party-goers think they might have to stifle a yawn when opening invitations, that Wendy Resnick sends a little jolt through the community. She's always thinking ahead and she's never afraid to be on the edge with something sexy and a little off center. That sums up her anything-but-bland Off-White Party.
Best Food Event
Winner: Florida Winefest & Auction for charities that benefit children and families
Taste of the Nation for All Faith's Food Bank through Share Our Strength
Chocolate Sundae for the UCP
The Winefest offers food events from paper-plate casual to crystal-wineglass formal, all of them entertaining and all of them involving the felicitous pairings of wine and food. And the amount it has raised for charity-$4.2 million to date-is staggering.
Taste of the Nation lets guests mingle at Phillippi Mansion and nibble the best of regional specialties from 20 to 30 restaurants. All the food and wine is donated by big-hearted folks in the food and spirits industries. Chocolate Sundae is a three-day celebration of chocolate that includes a multi-course dinner featuring chocolate in each course, demonstrations by celebrity chefs and a full day of signature desserts from fine restaurants from Tampa to Fort Myers.
Winner: Sarasota Film Festival for education outreach programs about the art of filmmaking
Sarasota Winefest & Auction for charities that benefit children and families
Sarasota Reading Festival for the Selby Public Library and the Jane Bancroft Cook Library at New College/USF at Sarasota
A flourishing festival requires huge and hard-working committees, dedicated sponsors and a strong central command that operates all year round. These festivals have all that plus staying power to have grown into community traditions. The Sarasota Film Festival keeps building cachet, with big crowds and gracious honoree Richard Dreyfuss this year. The Winefest keeps expanding its reach, adding lots of young fans with its new Uncorked event at the Van Wezel this year. And Caren Lobo, who in five years has built the Reading Festival into a powerhouse, made her last year as head honcho extra special with a host of great guests and special events.
Rebecca Baxter, Photographer and designated paparazzi for SARASOTA's "Limelight"
Janet Hunter, free-lance special events coordinator
Marsha Fottler, style editor, SARASOTA
Sally Schule, Assistant general manager, Saks Fifth Avenue Sarasota
Jocelyn Stevens, promotions director, SARASOTA
Margarete Van Antwerpen, Community volunteer and committee member